Building Eritrea? Desperate for certainty and chasing choices.

“[All the guests] understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the ominous lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction … were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped … but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

– excerpt from Americanah by Adichie, 2013.

This quote was the first thing that ran through my head when I was talking to this well-dressed young man in Asmara. It was the second day of my stay and the first time, by the look in his eyes, that I could grasp the meaning of Obinze’s words (see above), the way he might have meant it. “Choicelessness” and “certainty”. Words – according to Adichie’s character – and feelings that are making you either leap to do great things or are confining you to a state of despair. It was something that I couldn’t understand as a person growing up in the West; with all its privileges.

He came to visit his family member, a woman living on the same turf as I was. He asked me what I was studying and after talking about me he shared that he has finished a biology major at the University of Asmara and was placed in a town outside of his place of origin and teaches biology six days a week on a salary of 700 Nakfa; which equals to about €42. From the biology major to his placement as a teacher, all is planned by the Eritrean government. His teaching position is part of a national service: every Eritrean has to go to Sawa (a military academy located near the Sudanese border) to perform a military service for eighteen months after high school. After this period you can be sent home (and called back at any moment), go the University of Asmara (and after graduating being sent where you are being deemed necessary) or enroll in the army. All of this evokes the feeling of choicelessness. Your life is being planned in every detail for a time period unknown.

The last time I visited Eritrea was over 10 years ago. What always remained in my head was the beauty of the city: the Italian architecture a reminder of its history but beautiful nonetheless, people sweeping the sidewalks as if it was their own backyard and the cloud of fumes leaving the busses. Asmara captured the people’s spirit: that of a proud people. So I could not wait to return and to be able to take in the spirit floating through the streets, only to return with a diminished spirit. The beauty is still there, only with a slight limp in her step. The buildings aren’t kept up, pieces of paper and what-not are residing on the pavements since there is nobody that is sweeping them away and next to fumes that are leaving the busses the sound and image of generators have entered the landscape, since electricity is not available during the (whole) day.

According to the UNHRC 5,000 Eritreans a month flee the country. While the Eritrean government disputes this number, anyone who roams the streets of Asmara cannot help but notice that how the amount of young men in their twenties has diminished. My sister and I were joking about the contrast, while the young men that entered Europe were (literally and figuratively) fighting for a girl, the ones in Eritrea had it a lot “easier.’’ The stories are found in abundance. For example, one young man in his twenties offered us to drive us, for a large fee, to another city. We declined his offer, only to find out, a week later, that he drove his car to the border, crossed it on foot and is currently in Sudan. Another time, I took a cab after attending the national remembrance event for the fallen soldiers during the independence struggle. After getting in and starting a conversation with the cabdriver about the amount of people attending it in Harinet street and my noticing the large crowd that had attended, he said ‘There weren’t that many people here.’ Following his answer I jokingly asked ‘Where are they then?’ He simply responded ‘In the sea or in Europe.’

Children lighting candles at the national remembrance celebration for fallen soldiers during the war for independence.
Children lighting candles at the national remembrance celebration for fallen soldiers during the war for independence. Credit: Merhawi Fessehazion

Parents fear that their children will one day follow the same path that thousands have walked already. What I noticed and heard from younger family members is that young adolescents expect that an family member living abroad is going to pay for their journey. This all stems from a more common idea in Eritrea that all people living in the West are wealthy.  Since the payment to smugglers is on the arrival of an escapee, parents end up calling family from abroad (if they have any) and/or using their savings to pay the smugglers. A consequence of not paying can be death, so the family members living abroad will try to loan the necessary money (that they do not have), to prevent this.

Various family members of mine have (tried to) flee for different reasons. Some of them didn’t want to be in the army for any longer because they were seeing their relatives for 10 days out of the year, or were wrongfully accused by a commander of crime they did not commit and opted to flee. Having said this, teenage cousins who had a relatively good life and had no political ideas had also fled because their friends tried to cross the border. Choicelessness is the first word that came to mind while talking to them. Instead I noticed the blasé attitude towards their education. One cousin fails her class year after year. I asked her why she isn’t trying harder and her response was ‘What is the difference? If I do my best I will go to Sawa and also  if  I don’t.’

Still, the Eritrean government disputes the fact their citizens are fleeing in disproportional numbers compared to refugees and asylum seekers from other states. During an interview with Afshin Rattansi, host of RT’s Going Underground TV show, the special advisor of the president Yemane Gebreab did not respond to why people are fleeing in great numbers. Instead, he refuted the amount of Eritreans fleeing by saying that lean asylum procedures for Eritreans applying for political asylum lead to large numbers of asylum applicants claiming to be Eritrean, when in fact they are not. He stated that up to 50% of applicants are from citizens pretending to be from Eritrea. While he makes a point that a lot people pretend to be an Eritrean, because it increases the chance of a visa, every Eritrean in Europe can see the amount of new Eritrean arrivals growing exponentially and the people in Eritrea see friends and family members crossing the border, looking for a better life.

It would be ironic that the very policies by the Eritrean government, to build the country, are the same reasons there will be nobody left to build it.


by Merhawi Fessehazion, Researcher and Audience Developer at ERIF.


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